Many Americans feel that US-style “democracy” — “government of, by, and for the people” — ranks as by far the most important US export. Does the real product match the hype?
Gustavo Esteva: What’s happening today in the US offers a dramatic lesson for millions of people around the world. The US gave modern shape to the political form of capitalism, the “democratic nation-state.” But today, in the US and globally, we don’t see people really governing themselves through a system of “representation.” Instead, we see the perpetuation of the power of a self-appointed elite, now requiring increasingly authoritarian control over its people.
Elections have always been the centerpiece of the US model of “democracy.” The Zapatistas and other indigenous peoples reject electoral politics. How then do they choose their leaders?
Indigenous communities never believed that the electoral process offered an appropriate way to express the collective will or that elected leaders in México really represented them. For centuries, indigenous people have used assemblies as the communal supreme authority. These assemblies appoint municipal officers, chosen only from among those who have performed well in service to the people of the villages, without payment, for most of their lives. The procedure often unfolds like this. In January, those qualified are identified. Through informal discussions over the next few months, candidates are eliminated for various reasons. By October, the community has reached consensus on the person most suitable to serve. A final assembly asks that the person to lead the village. By custom, the chosen person must demonstrate humility by first protesting their selection before finally giving in. Individuals don’t decide to run for office. The community imposes leadership. And the leader/servant can be removed by the assembly at any moment.
Do women have an equal voice?
The combination of old patriarchal traditions with modern sexism became unbearable for women. Their courageous actions have been transforming political life in many regions, opening up, over the last ten years, the assemblies and leadership positions that were closed to women for centuries. In one community, Lachatao, the men in leadership called the women and told them: “We, the men, have been doing many wrong things in our community. We now want you, the women, to take all the political power to do something else.” And the women have led impressively.
Most have heard about the Zapatistas in Chiapas and their autonomous government. Do self-governing processes go beyond Zapatista territory?
The Zapatista regime includes hundreds of communities and has introduced many improvements over its 26 years. But we have hundreds and even thousands of other communities in Oaxaca — and other provinces — that could be described as caracoles, with no political parties, no elections, only assemblies. One measure of their success: Their Covid death rates have been lower than elsewhere in the country. They’ve handled Covid by focusing on healthy local foods and banning junk food, closing their communities to outsiders, and giving special attention to the old and those with health issues.
Can caracoles — networks of resistance and autonomy — grow within the belly of capitalism and birth a new world order?
I see that even you in the US are engaged in social experimentation aimed at going beyond the very undemocratic “democratic nation-state,” without falling into new forms of despotism. Indigenous communities in countries like México have become a source of inspiration. But these communities do not claim to be “the” model. On the contrary, the Zapatistas envision “a world in which many worlds can be embraced.”